Biglaw, Boutique Law Firms, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Independence Day

Tom Wallerstein

Some of you may already know that I don’t believe in dead weeks, so you can imagine the fits I’m having this year when the Fourth of July falls on a Wednesday. You know I’m out of sorts when a holiday that is supposed to be a single day off is turned into a five-day weekend in the middle of summer. Honestly, I was happy to give my associates and staff some much-deserved time off. But I’m pounding out this post anyway, and only after putting some finishing touches on a motion for summary judgment.

And I found time for reflective celebration. The Fourth of July has become a day when the powerful United States revels in its glory, and its citizens delight in colorful pyrotechnics that emulate the more beautiful aspect of warfare. Personally, I’ve always favored the disenfranchised, the underdog. And Independence Day is their day, too. The Fourth of July commemorates the victory of revolutionary insurgents who didn’t obey the traditional rules, and who triumphed over their more powerful adversaries. Good stuff.

Some people see the growing resurgence of regional, midsize and small firms as a revolution. Some people see alternative billing arrangements as a revolution. I tend to think that both those trends are somewhat overstated. I see them less as “revolutions” than as subtle “evolutions,” with important but limited long-term effect.

Still, Fourth of July week is a particularly appropriate time for this column.

Independence Day is particularly appropriate for this post because my column, in essence, is all about independence. My own Declaration of Independence took the form of an LLP partnership agreement; my own Independence Day came July 4, 2009, when I traded places with Biglaw and my litigation boutique opened its doors for business.

For me, independence from being a Biglaw associate means the ability to determine my own work. I can refuse cases I don’t want, or delegate to others work that I don’t have the time to do. Of course, I’ve made the point before that the freedom to bring in your own work obviously entails the responsibility of generating enough work to pay your bills. It’s a stressful tradeoff, but one that I’m very glad I made.

One of the most liberating aspects of running your own shop is that you alone are in charge of all the tactical and strategic decisions in your cases. You don’t have to try to advance dog arguments you know are losers just because a partner who has spent ten minutes thinking about the case fixates on a billable event. You can prioritize your work in the way you think is most appropriate, making time for family and friends in ways unheard of in a Biglaw environment. And you even can write as you please, enforcing your own idiosyncratic grammar rules and exceptions — like starting sentences with “and” and “but.”

Making all the strategic decisions in your cases increases the stakes both of winning and losing. When you win a case, the high is much higher than if you were just following orders from above. And when you lose, the loss is yours alone. Deciding on a strategy can be nerve wracking. Since it costs a lot to win, and even more to lose, you’re bound to spend some time just wondering what to choose.

Independence also means the luxury of declining to inflict on others some of the more infamous indignities that Biglaw is known to encourage. For example, I found that working in a black box with no sense of the bigger picture is one of the more frustrating aspects of being a junior associate in Biglaw. I try to remember to tell my associates why they are researching a particular issue, and to explain my thinking behind a particular strategic decision.

But the biggest well-known secret of Biglaw abuse is not poor treatment of associates. After all, they remain handsomely paid by any relative standard. Rather, the elephant in some Biglaw conference rooms is the mistreatment of clients. Some firms fall victim to the economic incentive to work inefficiently, or to undertake work that is not justified by the client’s cost versus benefit. The “leave no stone unturned” mentality can be abused into a rationalization for excessive and unnecessary billing.

Running my own firm gives me the prerogative to reject that approach and adopt a more client-friendly attitude. Much to my delight, that approach has resulted in repeat clients, and clients who refer still other clients to my firm. At least so far, trying to put the client first has benefitted my firm’s bottom line.

Running your own firm, whether as a solo practitioner or otherwise, is liberating and exciting. To anyone who has made the jump from Biglaw to something else in the last few years, whether by choice or otherwise, I hope you are finding success and having fun. I hope this year’s celebration of freedom gave you a chance to celebrate your own newfound freedom, too.

So, I enjoyed watching the fireworks tonight. From my rooftop in the City, I have a unique view of several different firework displays in the Bay Area, from Sausalito to Mill Valley to San Francisco to Oakland and beyond. The Golden Gate Bridge provides an awesome backdrop. So wave that flag. Wave it wide and high. I was “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” along with many others, and honoring our country’s independence. But I also remembered my good fortune and my firm’s third anniversary of declaring its own independence, from Biglaw.

Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at

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